On the Ajumma Slain in North Korea, and Anti-Communist Paranoia in the South

Well, I heard about this when I got home last night, and when I got up this morning, I found that Marmot’s Hole had a post up on the story.

The comment thread, and a subsequent post by Andy Jackson (and its comments), were of course filled to the brim with vitriolic snark on the recent protests, which everyone is still calling the US Beef protests, though the whole thing was a much bigger mix of issues than just beef. Though at least the first commenter on that post pointed out how poorly it reflects on so many at Marmot’s to be constantly bringing up the beef protests in relation to every damned news story they can. Oh, and of course jerks laughing at the dead lady. And foreigners so often call Koreans insensitive. There really should be an autism test for potential EFL teachers coming into Korea, I’m telling you.

Now, when I began writing this post, the main thrust of this post was to point out that, somehow, bizarrely, I was agreeing with some commenters — the ones who refrained from dragging beef or anti-Commie hysteria into the discussion, that is. I’m going to stick with that, and throw in my fifty cents of criticism at the commenters and posts at Marmot’s after.

The first thing that came up in our discussion of this news story was how Lime, rather disgustedly, brought up the behaviour of Korean tourists when they go abroad.

That is, many Korean tourists have a terrible habit of ignoring almost everything from signs to requests that they line up or not enter this or that area. If there’s a sign that says, “Keep off the Grass” and nobody else is on the grass, you can be sure that there’ll be a Korean — or, more likely, a big group of Koreans — sitting there on the grass sooner or later. In airports, the flights to Korea are the worst to board, because everyone feels like he or she has to be the very first onto the plane: many people don’t sit, they stand, en masse, in a flock, ready to cram their way forward in a teeming mass as soon as any announcement of boarding — even just First Class Only boarding — is made. Same thing goes for getting through immigration on the way out — the flight, full of Koreans, turns into a thronging mass of people trying to fight their way to the head of any line that appears before them without, by Dangun, waiting for even a moment if they can help it. Not all Koreans act this way, of course — when I flew to Beijing, a classy Seoul couple in their 50s were taken aback by the country ajeoshis who, seeing couples waiting in line at immigration side-by-side, decided to declare that there were not one, but rather two lines. I wished I had the guts to stop them as they shoved past me, and say, “No, farmer. There’s only one line, with some couples in it.” But instead, the classy couple and I stared in bemused disgust.

(I have to confess, boarding a plane back to Korea is now pretty much the low point of any holiday I take from here, simply because of the behaviour and the virally tense mood of almost everyone in the boarding lounge. The tension and anxiety in the air is thick as soybean paste, and it makes me wish flying direct to Japan, and changing planes to get to Korea, were more often an option.)

Lime’s observation on the claim made by those traveling with the woman who was shot is that, since someone got shot, this claims is exactly what we can expect them to make either way: whether or not they did receive instruction, it would not be anyway reflected in what they’re saying now, because, you see, they probably weren’t listening, or in any case, will discount what they were told because culpability now comes into it. Her point being: had they received guidance, and then one of their group went on to ignore it, they would be saying the exact same thing.

Finally, she figures that some individual stupidity factors into this. Anyone traveling to North Korea should know enough to know you do not wake up early in the morning and go off on your own into the dark. Surely this woman couldn’t have failed to see the soldiers all over the place. Surely she hadn’t forgotten that she was in North Korea. She just didn’t get it. Many commenters at Marmot’s are quite eager to lay the blame at the feet of the Korean left, but that’s intellectual laziness of the highest order. The woman can’t have been too bloody bright, but there have always been people like that. And anyway, other incidents have happened in the same place without fatalities occurring, Lime says. I have no link for this report, as I think it’s only in Korea and it was repeated to me during a conversation, but I could get it if someone wants it: not long ago, another visitor (I think some kind of official, actually) made the same mistake, was told to stop, and stopped in his tracks, hands in the air. He was interrogated for twenty minutes while his ID was confirmed, and then when it was cleared up, he was told, “You’re not supposed be here. Go back.”

The idea that North Korean leadership deliberately had a tourist shot is ridiculous, the fabrication of a moron. What do these idiots think the standing orders were? “Wait until some unthinking ajumma wanders into a military zone, and then shoot her in the back! That’ll show the flunkyist American-colonized South Koreans!” It’s about the most ridiculous notion I’ve run across in… well, okay, a day or two, but still. It’s moronic.

It also completely disregards the dilemma that was faced by the guy who pulled the trigger: shoot this person (who might be a spy, or someone trying to defect, or god knows what horrible visions they’ve filled NK soldiers’ heads with) or risk being executed or sent to the camps himself. I mean, really, realistically, what the hell was the guy supposed to do? Shoot first, and survive to ask questions later, is what any normal human being would probably choose. Especially a humanbeing who’d been through the thoroughly deformative experience of growing up under the weight of a lifetime of KimIlSung-ist and KimJongIl-ist propaganda.

Yes, it’s horrible for the woman and her family — and, yes, for the masses of people that live under the watchful gaze of the ones who give guys like this guns. But when you look at this case as a specific, individual case, what the bloody hell else was the kid going to do. Especially if the woman did ignore a command to stop, as, come on, be honest, we can all easily imagine many a line-skipping, subway-seat-nabbing, unreflective ajumma in her 50s doing: rules, for many ajummas, are niggling bothersome trivialities to be shrugged off or ignored, if indeed they ever even enter into consideration. And when you mix that kind of myopia with military guards who are paranoid-by-training and paranoid-by-culture, in a foreign country, what other result could you expect?

And the older the person, the more likely he or she is to flagrantly ignore not just basic etiquette but also common sense, and do whatever the damned hell they feel like doing. Many older Korean tourists just don’t follow the local rules. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in the Seoul subway (MOVE!), a Canadian airport (boarding by seat numbers? pbbbt!), a temple in India (what do you mean we can’t wear out high heels inside? the ground is dirty!), a traditional wrestling match in Mongolia (which my friend saw Korean tourists mocking incessantly), or a holiday resort surrounded by a heavily militarized, psychopathic dictatorship…

… though, interestingly, the only country I know from which middle-aged people would embrace holidaying in a heavily militarized, psychopathic dictatorship is, indeed, South Korea. It’s not just jeong that’s in short supply here, but also, it seems for a certain segment of the population, nunchi, at least when you use that word to mean “sense”. In that vein, Yahoo!News quotes the Chosun Ilbo as having run a piece with the following question:

“Where in the world would a soldier fire on a helpless female tourist for crossing into a restricted zone near a hotel at a tourist site?”

The answer, of course, is: Duh! North Korea, silly! Where else?

Yet another reinforcement of the observation that it’s plain stupid to be sending South Korean civilians up there.

I know, I know, one eyewitness claims that he heard two shots and a scream. Who knows if he did — see above, Lime’s comments on the mutability of claims in the face of a shocking event when culpability is in play — and even if he does indeed remember two shots, who knows whether his memory is dependable.

After all, there are  fundamental problems with our common assumption of reliability in accounts of so-called eyewitnesses. (And the witness in this case didn’t see, but rather heard, the gunshots.) Am I saying the North Korean soldier gave warning shots? No — I’m saying that we can’t really be sure he didn’t, no matter what this guy says. We especially can’t know because neither the North Korean shooter and his government, nor South Korean “eyewitnesses,” can be reasonably relied upo, because no eyewitnesses can really, reasonably be relied upon for an objective picture. The best we can do with “witnesses” is triangulate in on what probably happened. And no, my primary source for this observation is not Proust — though he did plumb the depths of that issue, didn’t he? — but rather a solid body of scientific knowledge about human memory and how much of it seems to pivot on speculative reconstruction of past events based on a scattered collection of details. You might start with How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker, if you’re curious about, you know, the world itself, outside of the insane echo-chamber of the blogosphere.

(Nutshell: When cops ask, “What did they look like?” after a crime, one witness describes two hispanics in baseball jerseys; another describes a three black sporting gang colors; a third will describe a Harold and Kumar speeding off in a VW Bug. Eyewitnesses are notoriously useless in figuring out what the hell happened.)

Maybe she was shot twice by one soldier. Maybe by several guys at once. Or perhaps the guy’s remembering wrong. Or maybe he’s changing his story out of sympathy for the woman’s family. All of that is, anyway, speculation, and realistically, probably, speculation is all we’re gonna get. Korea’s told the South to forget about any kind of South-operated investigation up there, and even if it hadn’t, the lapse in time and the tampering with evidence would probably make it very unlikely things could be reconstructed anyhow. The tours have stopped for now, but I wager they’ll be back on again soon. And people probably won’t get the take-home message from all that, which, you know, is this:

When you go holidaying in a country run by a psychotic regime, very, very bad shit may happen to you. And if it does, don’t expect anyone there to want the situation to become clear, let alone make sure justice is served.

This is true if you go off missionizing in Afghanistan. This is true if you go traipsing around Burma. This is true anywhere seething assholes run the show, and it is definitely true in North Korea. And really, that’s all there is to it, or that’s all wecan really learn from this.

Because to imagine this is some kind of highly-orante chess move in a Communist plot against Lee Myung Bak’s government is to succumb to the same bloody idiocy, the same moronic paranoia that Park Chung Hee used to stay on top for almost two decades, that Chun Doo Hwan used to justify prolonged dictatorship and slaughter of civilians, the same over-the-top crap that people should have — and many already have — gotten over long ago. Hell, it’s the same tactic that now provides us with terror alert levels, so that, you know, we can not just be terrified when terrorists act, but also have that warm, fuzzy creeping feeling of terror all year long!

One deep tide of this lamebrained paranoia seems to come back again and again to the 2MB Protests, so: yes, some Communist sympathizers exist in South Korea. Sympathizers with the North were probably (definitely?) among those who organized the protests, sure — it’s been widely claimed, and it doesn’t surprise me, because, yes, I saw some small number of people trying to vend translations of Trotsky at the first beef protests. (The sales weren’t going so well, I hasten to add.)

But there’s a big leap from that to equating the tryhardism of a few ideologues to a massive — and somehow spookily effective — Communist plot. It’s just too paranoid, too out of touch with the concerns — realistic or not — that got huge numbers of relatively moderate participants onto the street, and out of touch with how truly out-of-organizational-control the protests really got at the height of the rallies, when masses of people were networking and self-organizing online. That is to say, at the height of the thing I don’t believe anyone was really truly in charge anymore, no matter how much credit the “organizers” wanted to take. To think that thousands of people were puppets to “string pullers” is to be wholly ignorant of autocatalysis in the way human groups behave. The masses were as controlled, in a top-down sense, as a web commentator is in control of public opinion on a popular movie, or some plotline-designer is of the proceedings in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft. That is to say, maybe a little influenced, but not dancing steps planned by someone else. If someone had been able to hypnotize the masses, the agenda would have been clearer, there would have been a real bottom line in more people’s minds — instead of a jumbled hodgepodge of fears, angers, frustrations, and contradictory claims — and probably the whole thing would have taken a very different direction. Enthusiastic amateurism, I see, but to cold professional operators.

As for this narrative of what happened at Geumgangsan, with the little information we have, it seems much more believable to me that this is a case of several familiar and downright mundane factors colliding: the routine scene of older Korean tourists ignoring the local rules and doing what they hell they want; a North Korean soldier obeying his command to keep a military zone clear of intruders. The rest is all government — and rabid amateur political nuthead — spin, and pure speculation.

And as for the accusations of communist column-writing at Hankyoreh. To be utterly sure, like all media in Korea, that newspaper is slanted. Slanted as the eaves on a han-ok house. There are obviously plenty of problems with Hankyoreh — problems that are plentiful enough in Korea to point them out all day long, if we wish to get mired in that.

But I hardly think Jackon’s post about that particular article is fair: if you go and read the article, for all the scruples and hedging you may find, it also realistically notes the North Korean version will be untrustworthy, puts responsibility on the North for making amends and taking the situation seriously… in other words, Jackson’s cherry-picking distorts a call for people to not freak out into over a story we know absolutely nothing about, into a caricature of a glassy-eyed pro-North dismissal of the issues. Say what you want about many of their pieces, say what you like about their role in the use of the beef issue to mobilize the protests, but this one article is not what it’s made out to be, and it seems pretty cheap-minded to slam a passable article because of where it’s published. There’s an expression for that: it’s called argumentum ad hominem. (But then, that’s the most common modus operandi on the comment threads there; maybe it rubs off…)

Why is Hankyoreh encouraging emotional overreactions to Lee’s government, and US beef, and not to North Korea? If a Communist agenda to deliver the South into the hands of Kim Jong Il is really the only possibility that comes to one’s mind, then one’s mind is far too narrowed and twisted, and one has crippling laucity of imagination with which to imagine the motivations of those with whom he disagrees.

But it’s funny; when you filter out all the vitriolic anti-Communist paranoia — what year is it, guys? — and the snide snipes about the recent protests, there were a few things that actually resonated sensibly with what I’d been thinking… and, talking with Lime, I found she was also thinking similar things.

But before I get to what I am thinking, allow me to throw in one caveat:

Some will read this and decide, with the same idiot-savant brilliance that makes them decide that th 2MB riots were a memetic incursion designed by Kim Jong Il, that I’m some sort of pro-North Korean, so let me clear one thing up. North Korea takes a special place on planet earth for repugnance, along with the Burmese government, the Taliban’s long, vicious abuse of Afghanistan, and a few others.

North Korea’s government is a pack of exploiting monsters, outright walking, ideology-spewing turds, and I am among those who would be happy if somehow, magically, someone found a way to teleport every last member of the North Korean government and miltary to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Hell, if I thought such teleportation devices were possible, I’d probably devote myself to researching gravity branes and tachyons and theories on how to pull off wormhole construction so as to figure out a way to build a teleporter myself, so I could use it on Kim Jong Il and the rest of his crew of feces-brained assholes, though maybe not down into th ocean, because really, such a quick end would be way too generous to those bastards. Why extinguish their lives when you could, instead, drop them one by one, unarmed, naked, into some South Korean prison on a lazy Sunday afternoon? That’d be much funnier…

(Too bad I probably wouldn’t get a patent on it, but anyway, I’d demolish it soon after. This is technology the world doesn’t need, as nice as it would be to make it to birthdays and weddings on the other side of the earth. But then, we all know how bad teleportation would be, don’t we?)

If that doesn’t clear up for you the fact that, yes, I revile the North Korean state and every last piece of subhuman scum that runs it, you’re just not effing reading closely enough. I personally hope that the tours halt more than temporarily, not only because obviously there were problems in the way they were run, but also because it’s a messy, sticky, dirty hairball of money-flow going not just into North Korean coffers, but also into South Korean companies that don’t need to stoop to profiting off disasterporn — which is what North Korea is , an abject and utter historical disaster that visitors are welcome to come and gawk at. South Korean companies can make money in hundreds of other exploitative ways, without partnering up with the dung-souled nosferatu running the North to make more.

(Which is not to say I’m against all aid… food aid, as some North Korean escapees have noted, can’t help but trickle down to the population. But pumping money into the system, that’s just… sketchy. Especially when you consider where it really goes.)

I sigh. Sometimes I wish we had more amusing news to talk about in Korea.

PS: Yeah, I’m sticking this in the protest series, as it touches on the topic. But I think it’ll be my last comment on the subject. I’ve got an article I’m about to send out, and then I’m done with this for now.

Series Navigation<< Why Oh Why Can’t We Have a Non-Schitzophenic Media?Catholics 1, Riot Cops 0 >>

4 thoughts on “On the Ajumma Slain in North Korea, and Anti-Communist Paranoia in the South

  1. Isn’t it just? :)


    [0001] This invention is a system that teleports a human being through hyperspace from one location to another using a pulsed gravitational wave traveling through hyperspace.


    [0002] The basis for this invention is an event, referring to FIG. 1, occurring on May 2, 2004, in which the inventor (“he”) personally experienced a full-body teleportation while walking to the bus stop (A) along a road (B) that runs perpendicular to the nearby commercial airport runways where planes are landing. There is a wide iron grating (D) for water drainage that crosses the road at the center of the bus stop. The grating width is such that one has to make a concerted effort to jump across it in order to get from one side to the other. Approximately 50 meters from the iron grating, he (E) felt a vertical wave (F), similar to a flag waving in the breeze, traveling down the street toward the bus stop. The wave velocity was about 1 meter per second, which was slightly faster than his walking speed. In the next instance, he (G) found himself down the street near the corner of the next block. Realizing that he had passed the bus stop, he turned around to see the iron grating approximately 50 meters up the street in back of him. Because there was no recollection of having jumped across the iron grating nor of having passed the bus stop’s yellow marker line, he realized that he had been teleported a distance of 100 meters while moving along with the traveling wave. It was obvious that the wave was pulsed because the front edge overtook the inventor, moved with him momentarily, and then the back edge of wave left him as it moved on down the street. While contemplating this sequence of events, he then looked up and saw in a span of a few seconds a twin-turboprop airplane (C) in the distance crossing above the road while making a shallow descent in order to land at the airport.

    [0003] It took a number of days in order to understand this sequence of events…

    Makes one wonder at the Lem-ish possibilities for avant garde fiction. Patent applications by, er, “visionaries.” Maybe more Nabokov than Lem, though…

  2. Interesting read. I remember waiting in the airport in South Africa (if memory serves me correctly) next to a large group of country ajeosshis. One of them pulls out a cigarette and lights up. Mind you, we’re inside the airport, waiting at the gate.

    I realized that no one else was going to say anything, so I went over to him and told him he couldn’t smoke there. He looked around and told me he didn’t see any “no smoking” signs. There indeed had been no smoking signs all over the place, but I just patiently said, “This is an airport. You can’t smoke in airports.” He didn’t show any inclination to put out his cigarette. So I just stood there and stared at him until he finally, and angrily, stubbed it out.

  3. Charles,

    Priceless! At least he stubbed it out instead of starting an argument or (heaven forbid) a fight with you.

    Ha, one wonders whether a TV show called “Ajeoshis Behaving Badly” would fly here. Probably not, since people are used to seeing it all the time, but maybe with funny commentary and captions and so on, and audience reactions by a younger crew of Koreans who’ve “got it” enough to explain how uncool it all is in a way that amuses the audience, such a show might work for a season.

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